Reviewed: Christian Dior at the V&A

 

‘Maman, je hais les bottes’, a little girl informed her mother of her dislike for a mannequin’s boots.
‘C’est quand même assez chic’, her sister disagreed.
‘I had a jacket rather like that in the eighties’, reminisced an older woman.
‘I don’t like that at all’, her friend with the pompadour and purple coat and countered.
‘Elaine liked the green dress.’ Who is Elaine?

Such are the sorts of things you might hear as you weave through the day-dreamscape that is the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. For a few minutes, I thought of framing my visit as one made through others’ impressions—those of Lady Purple Pompadour and opinionated French children. Never had I been more tempted to eavesdrop, but with the over 500 exhibits and some truly fabulous displays, soon my own impressions became more than enough to catalogue.

This is a favourite feeling: the heart-eyed, physical and emotional sense of being so visually overwhelmed that you don’t know where to turn your gaze first. At one point, I stood and looked up at the smart-tech surface of a classically ‘painted’ ceiling explode in gold shimmers and fade to constellations before sitting down to watch the light show again. And again. And then once more.

An evolution of the Musée des Arts Décoratif’s Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, Dior begins with a small biographic timeline and a morphology of the Bar Suit—its oh-so-recognisable New Look silhouette and variety of iterations. The visitor is then guided through a shiny white model of the designer’s 30 Avenue Montaigne façade into an organic suite of themes, including the newly arranged ‘Dior in Britain’. Featuring Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday couture gown as its statement piece, this section treats Dior’s Anglophilia, collaborative endeavours with British fashion manufacturers and success amongst British clients. 

A parade of Aladin dresses (Right: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1953, Vivante Line ‘Lively’) and Mazette ensembles (Left: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1954, H line)

In the first of the nine sections beyond the anteroom, ‘The Dior Line’ presents ten quintessential Dior looks from 1947 to 1957: the ten-year span between Dior’s first collection and his death at age 52. Faced with the glowing strips of light delineating each mannequin’s space against the black background and the mirrored frames, my eyes slipped in and out of focus and my depth perception felt spotty. Curators suggest the timelessness of the line’s formative years in the telescopic space between opposing mirrors, and the selected ten ensembles become an endless stream of Aladin and Blandine, Maxim and Mazette.

With subsequent sections centred around ideas rather than chronologically, the exhibition maintains an equilibrium between cohesiveness-continuity and variety-expansion. The ‘Garden’ room reminds us of the inverted flower shape of the New Look—la corolle. The maximalism of John Galliano’s 2004 Look 4 Ensemble, resplendent in velvet, damask silk and erminesque rabbit fur, resonates with Christian Dior’s taste for romantic historicism. And the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director takes the Dior ethos of ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ to a new dimension, where a woman is no longer simply in a position to be considereddressed and celebrated—but to lead the House of Dior. 

‘The Atelier’ at Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A

Exhibition highlights include the crisp, ultra-exposed showcase of ‘The Atelier’, with its variety of workshop toiles: look closely, and you may recognise designs previously exhibited. Accompanying videos of meticulous craftsmanship are a bit hypnotic. Have you ever thought of how the bows on the bottles of Miss Dior are cut and tied by hand? The Diorama arranges seven decades of shoes, sketches, accessories and makeup in a rainbow fade, and I made a game of spotting the most modern of Chiuri’s tarot enamel minaudières amongst seventy years of material history.

The final exhibition piece is the ‘Eventail de vos hasards’ dress, in which Chiuri transposed Dior’s promotional fan from the 1950s to the pale pink tulle skirt of the gown. Holding the original fan, the mannequin stands alone amidst reflections of itself in a now-familiar play of doubling, inversion and self-reference. Dior ends with an image of the future, grounded in the past, of endless openings and chance.

Eventail de vos hasards dress (‘Fan of Your Chances’), Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, Haute couture, Spring/Summer 2018; Fan, Dior by Eventails Gane, 1950-5

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, July 14. 

A Visit to the V&A

For viewing fashion from 1920-1960, there is no better place in London than the Fashion Galleries, Room 40, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. So, off I went to South Kensington to see the displays which cover the highlights of fashion from 1750 to the present. The display cases are lined along the perimeter of a large circular gallery which allows one to choose whether to follow a chronological path or to travel against time as one wishes. These are some of the highlights of the exhibition.

The 1920s and 1930s are emphasised as a time of increased bodily ease and comfort in fashion as designs became more fluid and less ornate than before World War I. No longer defined by the waist, fashions of the 20s were tubular in shape and hemlines were raised to below the knee, allowing for a wider range of motion benefitting popular dances such as the Charleston. In the 1930s, attire for sporting activities became important and influenced fashion which is represented in a display of a tennis dress, two bathing costumes, and a beach walking suit. The active body and increased independence for women were key aspects of modernity reflected in the fashions of the time. Fashionable sportswear presents such activities as tennis, bathing, and dancing as appropriate and even desirable for women.

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Wartime austerity in Britain is represented by a Utility Suit from 1943 with a gas-mask bag worn cross-body as many handbags are today. Restrictions on clothing circumscribed that skirts should be knee-length without pleats and folds that would require an excess of fabric and jackets could not have more than three buttons.

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The close tailoring of the 1940s, imposed upon women, lasted until 1947 when Christian Dior famously showed his collection featuring longer, voluminous skirts and nipped-in defined waists dubbed the ‘New Look.’ To help women embrace what was a sea-change in dressing, magazines such as Vogue promoted the new silhouette heavily, which eventually became an icon of the 1950s. A display devoted to Dior’s ‘Zemire’ dress from 1954, made for Lady Sekers, showcases the elements of the ensemble. The undergarments reveal how the silhouette of a sculpted bodice and full, circular skirt are achieved. The close narrow shoulders and wasp-waist jacket contrast with the skirt’s volume to create the extreme hour-glass figure reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century, a source underscored by the mirror and fan in the display. The Dior case is a clear highlight of the gallery, at once deconstructing and celebrating the designer’s signature look.

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Undressed at The V&A

by Aric Reviere

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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

Last weekend, on my semi-regular sojourn to the V&A, I decided to attend the Fashion Department’s new exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear.” To my surprise the exhibition garnered quite a bit of attention the morning of my visit, with the exhibition space itself full of visitors and lines of spectators inching slowly past the glass displays of historic underwear and garments.

My initial expectation of the exhibition imagined the display to be a spattering of various undergarments from different eras, but with a noticeable emphasis on the corset and hoop skirt. To be fair, these elements were featured prominently in the display, and even though most of the visitors flocked to these body contorting contraptions, the rest of the exhibition presented a delightful overview of innovations in underwear from an impressive range of eras. I particularly enjoyed the emphasis on the evolution of lingerie design toward the end of the exhibition, which traced developments in the industry from the 1920s to the 1930s. Compared to the hyperbolic manipulation of the body evident in the miniscule waists of the corsets on display, the body sculpting garments from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s seem tamed. Upon closer examination, however, the garments’ structures constrict the form and manipulate it into an ideal shape. From an academic perspective, the garments provide a perfect point from which to examine the power structures connected to standards of beauty. They enable the viewer to question what motivated a wearer (and still does) to physically transform their body via the adornment of garments that often use metal structures to manipulate the form? What gaze ultimately develops that definition of beauty and through networks disseminates and propagates an entire system of dress to elevate certain ideals? How do such beauty ideals limit the wearer’s agency within various social contexts, but also enhance his/her agency within others?

The second half of the exhibition attempted to blur the demarcation between under garments, lingerie, etc., and outerwear through the presentation a numerous outfits from the V&A’s permanent collection. Personally, I found this section disconnected from the first half of the exhibition with certain ensembles on display not particularly resonating with the exhibition’s theme. With that said, I must admit that the Ulyana Sergeenko couture pieces were to die for and on my list of most coveted items.

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Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A Photo: Authors own

 

Ulaan Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Ulyana Sergeenko Couture, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, V&A. Photo: Authors own

Re-presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art

This Spring term I’m teaching a BA2 course entitled ‘Re-presenting the Past: uses of history in dress, fashion and art’. This was the first dress history module that I ever studied at the Courtauld as a second year undergraduate 6 years ago. Created and initially taught by Dr Rebecca Arnold, it was the first course that captured my enthusiasm for the subject, and prompted me to take my study of dress – as image, object, text and idea – to PhD level and beyond. Over the next ten weeks my eight students and I will be thinking about how history is studied, researched, thought and written about. We’ll be interrogating what history means, how it relates to diverse discourses such as narrative, power, identity and memory, and how our contemporary context impacts on the ways that history is used, presented and re-presented by historians, artists, photographers and designers.

Using theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Raphael Samuel, Jacques le Goff, Jean Baudrillard and many more, we will be considering how history can be re-visited and re-presented through images of dress and fashion. It’s a course that is wonderfully fitting to the cyclical nature of dress and fashion, which continually weaves together past and present with potential for the future. Using images of dress and fashion heuristically, to open out a broader discussion that draws on theory and context, we’ll be considering how objects might contain within themselves an alternative historiography, which could challenge preconceived ideas of what history constitutes.

For their Christmas projects, I sent my students to the V&A British galleries to consider how history is explored through image, object and text within the displays, and to think about how dress and fashion link to national history.

My own explorations threw up some interesting starting points. I began my search for uses of history in the V&A British galleries, 1760-1900, and happened upon a display case exploring the influence of Japan in Victorian Britain. The text panel diligently explained the enormous impact of Japanese art and design in the UK, which was first aroused following the opening up of Japan to British and American powers in 1850. From this point on, Japanese objects began to circulate globally and by the 1870s there was a craze for all things Japanese. The distinctive patterns and motifs of Japanese artistic forms provided a new and exciting source of exoticism to tantalise the curiosity of the British public and its desire for Eastern Otherness.

An example is an orange and green tasseled Japanese gift cover made of Satin silk, with two lobsters embroiders in satin silk thread on the front. The V&A caption vaguely informed us that it was produced in Japan between 1850 and 1880, and then concentrated on explaining that in the late Victorian period it was very fashionable to decorate your home with Japanese objects. The caption read: ‘Textiles such as this, which would have been used in Japan to cover a gift, were particularly popular. The striking lobster design would have seemed very exotic to the British public’.

Japanese silk cover and objects at the V&A.

Japanese silk cover and objects at the V&A.

Hung up flat on the wall of the display case, and thus divorced from its original function as a beautiful and functional object, the gift cover was presented in such a way so as to highlight its aesthetic qualities, which drew a connection to how it would have been originally been displayed, hung up on the wall, in Victorian Britain. In doing so, the V&A presented a very one-dimensional history of these Japanese objects, centered on the perspective of Britain. Although this may have been unsurprising, given that they were displayed in the British galleries, I began to wonder how the objects themselves might tell another history, narrated from the perspective of Japan.

Close up of Japanese silk cover.

Close up of Japanese silk cover at the V&A.

Presented in a very different way, and inserted into a Japanese context, the gift cover could have told another, equally important, history of Japanese art and design production, and how these objects circulated contemporaneously in Japanese daily life. Called a ‘fukusa’ in Japanese, this gift cover would have been draped over a gift, which itself would be presented on a tray. The ‘fukusa’ would be an object of interest in its own right to be suitably admired by the beneficiary, and any guests present. The choice of the gift cover constituted an important part of the process of gift giving and the extent of the decoration reflected the wealth of the person giving the gift, as well as their tastes. The gift cover was then returned to the giver.

This object is just one example of how preconceived histories might be challenged, nuanced, or even re-written in part through a focus on close visual and object analysis. In this particular example, the gift cover contained within itself another narrative of the past – a history narrated from an indigenous Japanese perspective -which the curious viewer might be prompted to further unpick the threads of.

 

The Fabric of India

Entrance to the exhibition

Entrance to the exhibition

I think the thing I loved most about the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition – and there is a lot to love – is the way that you learn so much through the objects themselves.  The show is subtly curated, there are distinct sections – dyestuffs, and types of embellishments and weaves, for example – which educate your eye in the early sections, but also a confident placement of fabrics across the displays, that slowly build deeper, longer histories. This means that by the later rooms, you are able to identify and understand the ways textiles fit into rituals, connect to life stage and to regional traditions, and the ways techniques somehow stay the same and yet can seem radically different in varied contexts.

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

18th century English and Japanese garments made from Indian fabrics

Fabric as a global commodity is one of the threads (no pun intended) that runs throughout the exhibition, and which is then made explicit in a room that shows centuries of interconnections.  This shows how specific fibre, embellishment or print might be, and yet how it will also be adapted and translated across cultures. Thus, we see a beautiful Indian chintz ensemble of delicately coloured petticoat, jacket and fichu from mid-18th century England, next to an under-kimono that uses fabrics traded to the Japanese via the Dutch East India Company, and a banjan (similar to a dressing gown) from the Netherlands, made of fabric from the Coromandel Coast. The object labels state where each textile originated, and map the rich craft skills and resources of different areas, which then travel internationally setting fashions, sparking imitations, and at times triggering trade restrictions to protect home industries.

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Royal Shawl presented to George V when he attended the Dehli Durbar in 1911

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

Political cartoons supporting local weavers, 1930s

You get a strong sense of India’s centrality to the textiles trade, and just as important, as a source of innovation and creativity.  The sheer diversity of designs on show is dazzling, and benefits from low-key display techniques that allow the objects themselves to shine – in many instances, literally.  The room dedicated to the notion of splendour is remarkable, and includes the exhibition’s centrepiece – the printed chintz tent that belonged to Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in the second half of the 18th century.  Although it stands in a room filled with beautiful wall hangings and garments woven with gold and silver thread, it more than dominates the scene. And the fact you can walk inside gives you a sense of life in a moveable palace.

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Indigo-dyed dress c1850-70, Kohat Pakistan

Not all the exhibits are so dramatic, though they still have impact – I loved the late 19th century indigo-dyed dress on display in the first gallery, so severe and yet so rich with its full skirt. And the end section that shows contemporary Indian fashions, including a row of saris that glow in the gallery’s dim light is amazing.  What comes across is an almost overwhelming richness – of design and craft skills and creativity, of geographical scope and diversity, and of textiles’ impact on history and vice versa.  With this in mind, the role of Imperialism and colonialism, and its concomitant brutality haunts many gallery’s – brought to the fore in the discussion of Ghandi and the political significance of Khadi cotton. This controversial aspect of India’s history could perhaps have been explored further, but the exhibition as a whole is a breathtaking exploration of the Fabric of India.

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Sari designed by Rashmi Varma, 2015

Fashion and Commerce: An Overview of Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen (1930)

Edward Steichen, Marion Morehouse and unidentified model wearing dresses by Vionnet, 1930.

Focusing on the aesthetic innovation of Edward Steichen during his tenure at Condé Nast, a conference hosted by the V&A, substantiated Steichen’s progressive image of fashion photography and portraiture that was at all times corresponding to a particularly American brand of identity. The collaborative conference was organised and held in light of recent exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery, In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937 and Inventing Elegance – Fashion and Photography 1910-1945 at the V&A. Speaker and co-curator of the Photographers’ Gallery exhibition William A. Ewing provided the best summation of Steichen’s vision as distinguished from the trajectory of other contemporary photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Martin Munkasci, Gerge Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst. By establishing the ‘metaphoric bridge between old and new’, Steichen facilitated the pivotal shift that allowed photography to escape the confines of documentation and broach the new frontier of the crossing between art and commerce.

The photographer’s role in becoming both the ‘maker and producer of art’ is particularly evident in the Vogue photographs throughout the ‘High Fashion’ exhibition, at once uniting the medium that casts a modern spotlight on refined simplicity and clarity, with the literal spotlight on the designs themselves, such as those by Poiret, Lanvin, Vionnet and Schiaparelli. The imbued value system that negotiates the space between fashion image as art, and fashion image as function, attests to what Alistaire O’Neill terms a ‘buttonhole complex’, in order that the consumer is clearly able to see each and every detail of the garment that is not corrupted or enhanced by photographic embelishment. In this light, the prominence placed on the reassurance of craftsmanship is symptomatic of the social insecurity intangible with new deal America, whilst at the same time responds to a conscious call for quality and truth, which the photographs stand to demonstrate exist in America. As a result, the total fashion image constructs an outlet that transforms ideals into reality, therefore strengthening, if not re-constructing a modern identity.

As has been explored, a dominant theme throughout both the High Fashion exhibition and Inventing Elegance conference, is the way in which Steichen’s photography functions under the duality of an explicitely ‘American’ and ‘Fashion’ framework. The exhibition presents photographs from Vogue alongside those from Vanity fair, clearly distingushing the image of both publications via their respective preoccupations, thus fashion imagery and portraiture. It could be argued therefore, that the role of the consumer that the fashion image relies upon is perhaps not as instrumental to the role of portraiture, as the commercial value is not intrinsic to it’s existence as art.

The portraits of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong and Mexican-American actress Armida Vendrell however call into question the commercial value of identity. In a room full of sportswear signalling the ‘American woman’, both subjects are presented in attire emblematic of their heritage, that even though born and raised in America, assume the identity of ‘other’. It is for this reason questionable whether the presentation of exoticism is itself a function of commerce that much like their roles as actresses invariably sells a foreign identity to an American audience, thus replicating the role of fashion imagery, or whether the photographer is relying on such social understanding of foreigners, in order that those who do not immediately fit the confines of an American look are deemed viable subjects of beauty befitting a public portrait.